Revolutionizing Governance: Mohalla Sabhas and the Delhi Government

It is a universally accepted truth that Indians tend to have clustered, spaghetti minds – full of minutiae and intricacies, appearing to be neatly segregated even while really being chaotic and clueless. What I learned through a five-week internship with the Delhi Government was that this conclusion holds true for the Indian administrative set-up as well.

Our administrative set-up is riddled with multiple issues – an alphabet soup of agencies and departments, an excessively hierarchical top-down structure and sarkaari officials too caught up in their own importance.

Delhi, for example, has DUSIB, DSIIDC, DDA, PWD, DJB, DISCOMs, and Local Bodies among other agencies to maintain the city. On paper, there seems to be a very neat distribution of responsibilities among them. Depending on where you live, the potholed road outside your house could be maintained by PWD (if it is wider than a certain length), DUSIB (if you live in the slums), DSIIDC (an industrial area), DDA (in developing colonies on the city’s outskirts) or the local body (if none of the above). On ground, however, things spiral out of control – forget the common person, even the officials may be confounded as to which assets they are responsible for. And this confusion isn’t limited to roads - think of all the grievances that a citizen may face on a daily basis, from schools to hospitals, parks, streetlights, sanitation and community toilets. One official even told us that the bulb of the streetlight and the pole are maintained by different agencies – which was fortunately, untrue (but the fact that he even contemplated something this obnoxious is telling). 

The top-down structure is also responsible for the inordinate delays in delivering basic services. To illustrate with an example – a complaint made by a citizen through the PGMS of the Delhi Government, moves down from the Chief Minister’s Office to the Head of Department, to the Chief Engineers and down three more levels of hierarchy before finally reaching the Junior Engineer – the man who is typically responsible for executing projects on the ground. Unsurprisingly, this process can take weeks to resolve even the most basic grievances.

Finally, the attitude of our officials. A lot of my work actually involved dealing with them and I realized that the primary issue is that the officials just want to prove to us how indispensable they are to our purpose - which is indeed, why they are so overly fond of paperwork, files, official correspondence and such. There is an accountability deficit – the officials are only responsible to their seniors and not to the public.

To someone who is unacquainted with these matters, getting a first-hand experience of the administrative inefficiency riddling our country would be intensely disheartening. Happily, for me, I made these observations while working on the project that is all set to resolve this administrative mess – the Mohalla Sabhas. 

To those who are unaware, Mohalla Sabhas are monthly gatherings of the registered voters of an area to raise grievances, execute minor projects, and identify beneficiaries for welfare schemes (among other tasks).

How is the Mohalla Sabha going to be different from traditional complaint forums? It is about the accountability of Government agencies – Mohalla Sabhas will be allowed to summon officials from agencies if officials are unresponsive or if the people are dissatisfied with the quality of work. Moreover, each Mohalla Sabha also has a separate Swaraj Fund to carry out any minor projects it may want to execute.

An equally important tool in this drive towards accountability is being developed currently through the ongoing agency mapping process – which I was part of. Once completed, the agency mapping exercise will ensure that the common-man will now be able to access the ownership and maintenance details of every asset in his area, through an online app. Thus, people will now know which asset is maintained by whom and will be able to contact that official directly, effectively circumventing the alphabet soup of agencies and the hierarchical bureaucratic process discussed earlier.

I must also mention the team of interns who have been doing such tremendous work to ensure the success of this project. The AAP Government in Delhi, I think, is one of the few Governments that have creatively leveraged the dynamism, talent and energies of the youth. Indeed, this team has been drawn from across the country – while in Delhi, I met volunteers from Kerala, Indore, Assam, Chennai, Chandigarh and Hyderabad. Over the past one year, this team has been carefully laying the groundwork for the project – defining the boundaries of each of the 2972 Mohallas, training the Mohalla Coordinators, conducting the gargantuan agency mapping process. What would have taken years under a bureaucracy has been achieved in this relatively short span of time. And these are some of the brightest youth in the country – IIT graduates, IIM students, one soon-to-be IAS Officer and students bound to Oxford and Harvard.

There were also other volunteers I met during the course of my stay there – adults, who have actually given up their jobs and dedicated themselves to the cause of the people. One of them, now living in a room in Chandni Chowk after giving up his career at an NGO, is crowd sourcing his expenses through his former colleagues. Tales like these give you hope – hope that people do care and that things can change.

Personally, I have always viewed the AAP with distrust and scorn, thinking of it as a party more willing to engage in controversies and theatrics than in anything constructive. The fact that I built this image is not surprising – sitting in Mumbai, all I ever saw of the AAP were its anti-Modi Twitter tirades and dharnas. My internship exposed me to another side of the AAP – as being the only party actively looking to devolve power and responsibilities to the citizens. 

There is also, I have noticed, a marked humility in the conduct of the MLAs of the AAP. Most of them are political greenhorns and lack the cultivated arrogance of our mainstream politicians. The AAP Government also has a tendency of engaging with the public a lot more – the Deputy Chief Minister recorded an automated voice call to all teachers, thanking them for their support. His adviser, Mrs. Atishi Marlena walked into a feedback session held with Government teachers on how to improve the current education programs. Small efforts, we may think, but it has some impact on the people.

I will also concede that there is a probability that the Mohalla Sabhas may not be immensely successful. And if it does, it will not be due to lack of effort on the side of the Government but due to the project’s immense reliance on public enthusiasm and participation (which is, as always, fickle and prone to losing momentum). If citizens just fail to turn up at Mohalla Sabha meetings, what can the Government do?  

I say this due to my own experiences in dealing with the Mohalla Coordinators at the Orientation Sessions we held with them to acquaint them with their responsibilities. Mohalla Coordinators are the ground-level officials who will be conducting these monthly Mohalla Sabha meetings and doing all the back-end logistical work of organizing them. They are the crucial centerpieces to the program and yet, I have observed that quite a sizable number are cynical regarding it. Their primary query is regarding how the Mohalla Sabhas are any different from traditional citizen complaint forums. No amount of explanation can actually satisfy them.

Can we blame them? These coordinators are the foot soldiers of the AAP – the erstwhile activists who used to run from pillar to post, scrambling to resolve the grievances of their people. The system has consistently been failing the people for the past 70 years and I cannot blame them for not being hopeful.

Regardless of however it turns out, by the end of this year, Delhi will have witnessed the first real attempt by any Indian Government to devolve powers to the people. Democracy will have evolved to its logical conclusion. 

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